Train Spotting: What makes Harvard Square scary, then and now

As a tour guide, Michael Barry knows a thing or two about the shady history of Harvard Square.
As a tour guide, Michael Barry knows a thing or two about the shady history of Harvard Square.

Once upon a time, Harvard Square was known for the bohemia surrounding its world-famous Ivy League institution. Today, it’s pretty much a glorified shopping mall. But the school hasn’t gone anywhere! And those people with Victorian-era fashion sensibilities who hang out by the T? They’re not cultists. They’re tour guides.

We hopped the Red Line to speak with one among their fellowship, Michael Barry, who expounded on Harvard’s dilemmas with unruly phantoms.

Know any Harvard ghost stories?

Oh yeah. There’s the story about a student who was scared to death by a fake haunting. There’s also some tales about an old mill from the 1800s. They’ve torn down that mill since then, and put a dorm in its place. In the wintertime, a lot of students see mill workers trying to get back into the building.

How does one end up scared to death?

He was telling his friends that he didn’t believe in ghosts, so they wanted to prove him wrong by giving him a fake haunting. They showed up at his bed in the middle of the night. He saw there was a ghost and pulled out his pistol to shoot the person under the cloak or bedsheet. They had taken the bullets, but not the gunpowder, out of his gun, so it seemed like he was shooting at nothing. It scared him so much he died. It’s said that his soul, ironically enough, now haunts Harvard University.

At Northeastern, I learned about drugs, alcohol and later, student loan debt. Would I have had a more productive experience at Harvard?

No. You would probably be in even more debt from Harvard. A lot of people walking around here in Harvard Square say they were Harvard students at one point. Now they’re homeless.

Ah, they had to move into the pit with all the crusty punk rockers over there.

Yeah, I don’t know how many of them actually were Harvard students. But I hear a lot of students graduate, then don’t end up getting jobs right away, as they were promised.

Who’s your favorite celebrity Harvard grad?

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., former Supreme Court justice. That’s who my character is for the tours. His most famous court decision was probably Schenck v. United States, where he coined the phrase “clear and present danger” in 1919.


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